The end of history (museums in Toronto)

I’m not happy about writing this: the city of Toronto decided this week to close “museums with the least attendance, and revenues compared to costs.”  Very sad, and unfortunate, but given how poorly the city’s cultural heritage is managed, not surprising.

Gail Lord, one of world’s leading museum consultants – who just happens to live and work here in Hogtown – alleges “the city misunderstands what museums are,” and doesn’t grasp that they are about identity, about linking the past to the present, about providing social cohesion.  Destroy these repositories of our collective history, she says, “and you destroy the DNA of who we are and how we got here.”

She’s absolutely right, and we will be a much poorer society without organizations charged with telling our local story.  But that’s the problem – they haven’t been effective at telling the story. Why would city council choose to close down a set of institutions that were considered crucial to advancing the municipality’s brand? If the city doesn’t know how to leverage its past to benefit the municipal brand that’s because museum managers haven’t shown them how.

Toronto’s heritage sector has tried promoting its public value through platitudes, not practice.  It can’t get beyond the nebulous cliché that “history is important” – something museum people repeat like a mantra but do little to back up.  They have no imagination about how to disengage from their preoccupation with the turnstile and impact more people by broadly telling their stories.

Consequently, museums seem old-school in our Toronto Life society where culture has become celebrity and event-driven. Then, the inevitable happens: someone says “we have to save money…somewhere.”  Museums’ self-inflicted neglect positions them as low hanging fruit for city budget cutters: visitorship is down, so it is easy for council to believe no one cares.  It’s hard to blame councillors for thinking this way: make yourself vulnerable and you are…well, vulnerable.

A strong heritage brand, if they had one, would have been a form of protection, yet the Toronto historical community failed to build one.  Instead, they focused on a flawed business strategy: that people have to visit. The museum community – here, as elsewhere – is addicted to attendance; feels validated by high visitor numbers.  But attendance doesn’t mean enlightenment, nor does it signify public-mindedness. Even if attendance was strong, high visitor numbers don’t necessarily indicate “something good is happening” (Falk and Sheppard). By focusing on the turnstile, on programming rather than projecting their stories, museums have isolated themselves and helped create the conditions that have resulted in this worst-case scenario.  Live by the turnstile and, apparently, you die by it. And now Toronto’s local history sector is dying.

If they were in fact valued public institutions worthy of support (and I believe they are), they should have been taking steps to put themselves at the centre of a vital public conversation; should have been trying to challenge audience thinking beyond their walls: sustain intellectual interests, establish communities that want to stay connected with them. The museum’s real success should be based on its ability to ensure its community was well-informed and talking about its work, and that their interest was being sustained.

But they haven’t done any of this, and Torontonians have lost their connection to their story.  With that lost connection, of course, goes the publics’ (and politicians’) perception of the value of local history.

Toronto museums have badly read the identity of this city and the public mood; haven’t fought for their cause the right way.  And now they’re about to pay a big price for being passive.  Too bad, but that’s what happens in a culture of expectation when your attitude is “people will understand and will support us.”  They don’t, and won’t, unless you actively engage the hearts and minds of your constituents.


For further reading about place branding from the Contrabrand archive…

Know Where You Live (2004):

When an “Inside Job is Okay” (2004):

Substance versus Style in Selling Brand USA (2002):

Brand-name government (2001):







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: